Gregory Maguire gives us a unique and well-crafted take on the Snow White fairy tale in this thoughtful, enjoyable novel. Set in 15th-century northern Italy, the story of the innocent young woman Bianca de Nevada features a real-life villainess, Lucrezia Borgia, as the evil stepmother. Lucrezia, illegitimate daughter of a corrupt pope, enters de Nevada’s household and blackmails him into an impossible quest for an incredible relic: the Apples of Knowledge, from the original Tree in Eden.
Maguire is a talented wordsmith, and his expertise sparkles here. Not only does he create beautiful descriptions and an appealing setting, but he also manages to make what could have been a very erratic narrative style completely comfortable and fluid: the narrative voices in the chapters alternate in no particular pattern between third person and first-person accounts from the perspectives of the central characters (including the evil Lucrezia). I was amazed by the natural feel of the narrative, even when superficially fragmented in this way — it never once felt the least bit stilted or confusing. Occasionally, Maguire’s portrayal of the eight (yes) dwarves was a bit less effortless — they are creatures of stone who are gradually becoming more alive and ‘human’. This portrayal didn’t click quite as consistently as those of the human characters somehow, but it was still an interesting twist.
Morally, Maguire is a really hard case to call. This book doesn’t contain nearly as much objectionable content as Wicked, although it still has a tendency to descend into crudity occasionally. But beyond simple content issues, Maguire’s books deal with significant and foundational moral issues regarding the nature of good and evil, and of humanity. I greatly appreciate authors who will deal with these monumental themes in their work — even if I disagree with them, as I feel that I do with Maguire — because these authors are recognizing through their fiction that the truth is *important*, that moral questions are worth considering and answering. Here, Maguire goes beyond the already apparent symbolism of the poisoned apple in the Snow White story. What if the apple really *is* the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? In the subplot of the dwarves’ gradual coming-into-being, it is implied that to be human is to sin: particularly, to deceive. Is the dwarves’ transformation an ascent or a descent? For that matter, what of Bianca, who succumbs to the temptation of the Apple?
This book — which is quite short for a novel — manages to bring up many such interesting moral questions, all the while remaining loyal to the plot of the original story. As always, Gregory Maguire — with whom I have no doubt I disagree profoundly on most issues of importance across the board — has created a book which is both enjoyable to read and fascinating in his implications, thus solidifying his place as one of my favorite modern fantasy authors.
Content warning: The book contains some bad language. It also contains some crude references and strong implications (based on historical rumor) of an incestual relationship between Lucrezia Borgia and her brother Cesare (though no graphic scenes occur).